From the muted colors and fine detail of the scroll-mounted Red House Among White Clouds to the bright impressionism of Dance Series No. 18 to the modernity of Memories, the Morlan Gallery's exhibit of Chinese ink on paper initially looks like a retrospective.
It is not. The works are all contemporary, created in the past two decades representing the tradition, progress and inherent tensions in the distinctly Chinese art form.
"In Chinese art, the ink-brush painting is known as the national style of painting," says Andrea Fisher, director of the gallery at Transylvania University. "It has a very long tradition. So even though this is contemporary ink brush, it is still directly rooted to this Chinese painting tradition."
Fisher is ecstatic to have Memories of the Past: Contemporary Chinese Ink Brush Painting on the walls of her gallery in Transylvania's Mitchell Fine Arts Building. It was curated by Kuiyi Shen, director of the Chinese studies program and professor of art history at the University of California, San Diego. Shen also has curated for the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, Spain, and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Transylvania show features some of the superstars of contemporary Chinese art, mostly represented by pieces taken from their personal collections. Pan Gongkai, president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and vice president of the China Artists' Association, even created a piece, Ink Lotus, especially for the show.
And it was all put together exclusively for the Morlan.
The key to the coup, Fisher says, was her office neighbor, Transylvania University art history professor Wei Lin.
"I approached her because I knew she was this quiet resource of amazing connections," Fisher says. "So I said, 'Wei Lin, let's work on a show of Chinese art together because I certainly don't have those connections.' I joke that she's petite but her arms reach across the Pacific Ocean."
Lin's main connection was Julie Andrews — not "the 'hills are alive' Julie Andrews," Fisher says, but the Chinese modern-art specialist who is married to Shen. Lin had worked with Andrews and got to know Shen when Lin was at Ohio State University.
Lin does not dwell on the logistics of putting together the show but goes straight to discussing the work itself and how it represents the traditions and new directions of Chinese ink on paper.
Most of the pieces in the show are traditional ink on rice paper, she says. But approaching Feng Bin's Dance Series No. 18, she says, "This piece is very controversial."
Far from muted, fine detail, it is an impressionistic image of a man and a woman dancing in bright yellow and purple. And it's on mounted canvas, like a Western painting.
"It looks very Western to me," Lin says. "But this artist has been through traditional training, and he still considers this traditional art."
The friction between tradition and progress in China's national art form echoes struggles in many forms, such as, say, when an orchestral composer wants to add a saxophone to a piece or avant garde playwrights want to toy with traditional narrative forms.
In Lexington, Memories of the Past allows us to marvel at the skill it takes to make the traditional painstaking work in pieces such as Li Huayi's Autumn Mountains and Zhang Yu's sheet of pink Fingerprints.
In terms of Chinese art at Transylvania, this show isn't all there is. The same group hopes to put together an exhibit of contemporary Chinese contemporary art with forms including installations and video art.
"It will require much fund-raising," Fisher says. "But it would sure be a lot of fun to get here."
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3217.